Making YouTube work for news

YouTube’s monthly logged in user base, currently at 1.9 billion, continues to swell, making it an increasingly critical platform to find audiences as news publishers eye diversifying traffic sources. The average viewing session is up by 50 percent over the last year, hitting 40 minutes, driven in part by the rise of the living room and a growing segment of older users. The changes in behavior coincide with more surfaces for news programming on the platform, including news content from authoritative sources on the homepage, in search results, and as recommendations on living room devices — all of which suggest important opportunities for traditional publishers.

YouTube’s news partnerships teams met with 18 audience and product development leaders from global and national media properties on October 30 to explore how the platform and publishers are adapting to the changing trends, and the strategies and tactics driving success on the world’s second largest search engine.

Brandon Feldman, YouTube News and Politics Partnerships Manager

Brandon Feldman, YouTube News and Politics Partnerships Manager, led discussions with the publishers about relevant content trends and news opportunities on the platform.

The meeting was convened by the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism’s News Audience and Product communities of practice, which bring together journalists working to develop bigger, more engaged audiences and compelling products for a variety of global, national and innovative niche publishers. Comedian and writer Joanna Hausmann led a separate discussion at the meeting, which focused on her YouTube work and lessons that news publishers might draw from the platform’s creator ecosystem.

The following takeaways from the five-hour discussion illuminate the platform’s opportunities and challenges, as well as best practices, surfaced during the discussion and the experiences of participants.

To allow community members to speak openly, the discussion was held under Chatham House rule, which permits participants to share what was said, but not who said it or the organizations they represent. Any mention of specific publications below does not suggest that they participated in the discussion; only that their public YouTube activity served as an example.

Rise of the living room

The average watch time on YouTube increased 50 percent year over year, fueled in part by a dramatic increase in viewing on living room devices — think connected devices like smart TVs, Roku, and video game consoles.

There may be opportunity in viewing the living room as a “testbed for ideas to expand more broadly,” said one discussion participant, suggesting publishers can optimize for living room screens with longer form content. “Think about areas where your content can act as replacement or supplement for TV programming … User behavior mimics TV behavior.” YouTube data reflects the rise of TV behavior, with increased viewing during prime time and on weekends.

Successful news publishers embrace personality-driven content

News publishers increasingly find success on YouTube by pushing more personality-driven content. One discussion participant from a women’s news and lifestyle publisher shared their experience launching an investigative news series. Unlike the publisher’s previous news videos on the channel, which underperformed against their lifestyle content, the series had a host to present the information in a way that took the audience on a journey. “When it comes from a serious, top-down perspective, it doesn’t work,” the attendee said. “The audience wants us to come to them at their level… ‘Have you ever wondered this? Me too. Let’s figure this out together.’” That series’ videos outperformed their average video on their channel by 900 percent.

Some meeting attendees shared concerns about the risk of losing the personality, drawing in response recommendations from others to focus on format, such as Wall Street Journal’s “Interviews in Elevators” explainer series, and using successful personalities to seed other shows on the channel, creating a suite of personalities that reduces dependence on any individual. YouTuber Joanna Hausmann advised during a session on YouTube’s creator ecosystem that news publishers can produce content with personality, not necessarily a person. “You can be more creative in the way you present personality… be in voice visually.”

YouTube algorithm driven by watch time

Publishers are interested in better understanding the YouTube algorithm. Creators suspect that a recent algorithm change favors longer videos. A 2017 analysis by SEO firm Backlinko reflected these findings, and also found that comments, likes and shares played a significant role in YouTube search rankings.

Participants said optimizing their meta-data for YouTube search is a start, but the recommendations engine remains opaque. YouTube has publicly said that it optimizes for watch time, looking at the amount of time people spend watching videos in a visit and over a 24-hour period. So the platform’s recommendations engine presumably favors news programming that drives binge-behavior, or encourages return visits to the platform, versus one-and-done news stories.

Moderation remains a challenge

Several attendees expressed concerns over YouTube’s sometimes toxic comment sections, and particularly a culture of harassment towards women and people of color. Moderation takes “tons of personnel hours to keep it clean,” said one attendee from a digital native publisher. Comment moderation is a barrier to entry for some publishers; an attendee from a leading ethnic publisher said that, given the nature of their content, “We can’t put forward a personality driven program without community being cleaned up.”

Discoverability for news programming

YouTube is investing in making the platform a news destination. YouTube now dedicates a section of the homepage and search results during breaking news events to videos from “authoritative sources,” including snippets and links to articles that provide context. Discussion participants observed that the publishers benefiting from that appear to align with the “authoritative sources” preferred by the Google News team.

YouTube Live and Premieres: Opportunities?

YouTube Live began rolling out in 2011, but some publishers in the room said they’ve had trouble drawing in audiences. Those who succeed appear to fall into two buckets: being first movers with strong meta-data during a breaking news event, and those, such as The Young Turks, who over time have trained their audience to their regular daily broadcasts and built community around live publishing.

Discussion participants observed that approximately 75 percent of viewership for YouTube’s live programs occur after the stream has ended. Building off of Live’s shared viewing experience, which includes live chat and view counters, YouTube is rolling out Premieres to bring that experience to previously recorded material.

Local news opportunity in the living room?

Local news has largely struggled to find audiences on YouTube. The rise of the living room audiences may justify investment. Using device location information, the platform is recommending local news content on living room devices in 25 markets. Those recommendations are “doing really well compared to other content recommendations,” said a participant with insight into the program, suggesting that YouTube could explore more ways to spotlight local information.

Sustainability and monetization

There are currently three ways to make money through YouTube — advertising, paid subscriptions and transactions. The platform is exploring channel memberships, integration with merchandising and ticketing platforms, and integrations with owned-and-operated subscriptions (potentially through Subscribe with Google).

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